Salt Wine Bar
Salt Wine Bar on Lower Ossington has had a long struggle to get up and running but that's a story we've all heard many times. What matters is that now, finally, the wine is officially (and legally) flowing at the long awaited restaurant. Focusing on Portuguese and Spanish cuisine, Salt offers a variety of tapas dishes and a decently sized wine list to match. After the space sat unopened, teasing us for so long, and then opened briefly only to close again, there was plenty of time to build up intrigue about what this wine bar has to offer, and so last week I finally make my way to find out.
The front door of Salt is surrounded by a giant curtain creating a makeshift alcove between the freezing cold outdoors and the dining room, and as I step around the curtain I'm immediately struck by the beauty of the place. Dark and cozy, an all wood room is dotted with little candles everywhere, the flames twinkling off of the wine bottles and preserves that stock the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Small wooden tables fill the warm space, and on this cold night there are very few customers other than us.
We begin by examining the somewhat baffling wine list, and the owner comes over to greet us and help with some suggestions. Although the Salt website is now up and includes tasting notes to go with each wine, the menu we receive in the restaurant denotes neither country of origin nor description. When I inquire, the owner explains the wines are mainly Spanish and Portugese, with some Italian. I ask for a specific suggestion as this does little to help us narrow down the selection, and we eventually settle on the full-bodied Alento ($45), a blend of Syrah and Alicante.
With the wine selected we begin the process of deciding what we'd like to order, another difficult task considering the mildly overwhelming number of options. Our knowledgeable server takes the time to describe many of the dishes, offering his favourites and weighing them against the dishes we mention we're curious about. After much deliberation we finally figure it out, and the dishes begin to arrive, soup first and then in no particular order, just sort of when they're ready, which ends up being a nicely paced meal.
Oxtail consomme ($5) is rich, comforting broth with a mild sweetness from the sherry countered by a slight tanginess. The soup is peppered with tiny cubes of carrots and parsnip and thin strips of translucent onion. Some fishing around with the spoon also reveals only a couple tiny hidden gems of tender, delicious oxtail. The other soup, a puree of Jerusalem artichoke and leeks is a smooth, earthy blend with just a subtle aroma from the added truffle. Both are excellent starts, and happily my dining companion favours the latter, leaving me to finish my preferred consomme.
Next comes the Portuguese sardines ($10), served on grilled baguette with smoked tomato jam. Though the thinly sliced bread's toppings cause it to become slightly soggy towards the centre, the sweet and smoky tomato flavour paired with the meaty grilled sardines is a pleasant combination of textures and flavours, the chervil on top adding a nice subtle pop of parsley-like freshness.
When choosing amongst the fried options on the menu, I'm heavily leaning toward the jamon serrano croquettes, but our server insists that the salt cod quenelles ($5), a common Portuguese street food, are the way to go. The quartet of golden quenelles are perfectly fried and crisp, but the filling is somewhat disappointing. The smoothness of the mash potato mixed with the fish contrasts nicely with the crunchy exterior, but the bland, fishy taste is underwhelming. The snappy parsley aioli does help somewhat, but not enough to shake the feeling that I should have gone with my gut and ordered the croquettes.
Braised wagu short ribs ($15) are a definite highlight (though my friend might argue that the sardines were the night's winner). The braised meat is fatty and indulgent, so tender is falls away from the bone with the slightest jab from a fork. Each piece sits on a small mound of warm, silky garlic mashed potatoes, and tiny cubes of lightly pickled vegetables add an extra little bite.
It's extremely hard for me to decline a creme brulee, and in the case of Salt's brown butter version with pecans ($8), I'm glad I didn't attempt such a feat. With the tap of a spoon, the familiar crunchy exterior gives way to a smooth, creamy interior, the odd piece of pecan dotting the rich custard. Chocolate and red wine has long been a favourite pair for me, and so with our bottle not yet empty, the chocolate tart ($8) is another obvious choice. The dense, dark chocolate filling is just enough decadence, and the scoop of gelato full of vanilla flavour is a very nice touch, but had the tart been served at room temperature rather than cold, I have a feeling this dessert would have tasted even better.
Aside from a few mild disappointments, our meal at Salt was quite enjoyable in itself. What made the experience even better however, was the attentive service. Our server not only offered his suggestions, but also seemed genuinely curious what we thought of the dishes, never hovering too often, and also never disappearing for too long. The main attraction at Salt Wine Bar, in my opinion, is the room itself; a space so lovely and inviting that its twinkling candlelit atmosphere alone is almost enough to make the visit worthwhile, and with so many intriguing items on the menu to sample, there might just be an interesting meal to be had as well.
Photos by Taralyn Marshall